I first blogged about Autodesk Fellow, Tom Wujec's, marshmallow challenge in October of 2010.
So I was thrilled when I read a letter that Tom shared with us the other day.
Dear Tom Wujec, or to whom it may concern:
I have a complaint for The Marshmallow Challenge; my Peruvian youth group smoked the challenge in under 6 minutes, and I was left speechless.
Let me explain...
My name is Amanda Rodgers, and I am a Peace Corps Youth Development Volunteer serving in Peru. I've been living in my Peruvian community for about 7 months now working with youth on everything from self-esteem to taking care of the environment and sex education. I'm working with kids who the majority of which: live in single-parent households, have held a job or helped pay the bills since they were around 8 years old, are put through an education system that does not encourage creativity or critical thinking, do not believe they have the ability to pursue a higher education after high school (which they generally finish at age 16), and could not point out to you where they live on a map. The odds are definitely against us, and sometimes the best we can do is help raise the self-esteem of the kids we work with, some of whom are learning the concept of ¨self-confidence¨ or their future for the first time.
While at a recent In-service training that focused on leadership, my Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator set 20 of us to the Marshmallow Challenge. As part of our trainings we often learn and participate in the same games and activities we can later use to interact and teach the youth within our community. We had no idea of the history of the Marshmallow Challenge, nor did we have the foresight to see the significance of the seemingly simple activity. We all failed miserably. To a ¨T¨ we demonstrated the same issues as the ones described in the TED talk - organizing, planning, building, and at the last moment placing the marshmallow on top only to watch it crumble.
After coming back to my community, I decided it would be a good activity to do with a youth group I facilitate consisting of kids ages 15 to 5. Somedays I have 30 kids in the group, other days 14, but we meet every Saturday to work on self-esteem and personal development. I decided to use the Marshmallow Challenge as the beginning of a series focused on leadership and teamwork.
With all of my kids together I did not have enough to make multiple teams of four (some of the younger kids around 5 and 6 years-old are impossible to persuade into activities, so I allow them to work on art and drawing instead), so I had two groups of three and one group of four, ages 8 to 15. I gave them the directions, handed out the packets of supplies, and set the timer. Some of them complained it was impossible. Some of them begged to eat the marshmallow. I put on some music and waited for the results.
Not all of them immediately set to work, one group stared at the contents and pleaded for help while the other two immediately started working. There was little talking amongst the groups beyond conversation and jokes.
The countdown hardly reached 13 minutes by the time the first group called out, ¨¡Terminemos!¨ Within a minute, the next groups as well called out they were done. Before my watch even reached 11 minutes all of the groups sat staring at me, wondering what was next, all of their structures standing with the marshmallow on top.
I had told them the activity would be 18 minutes; no more, no less. I tried egging them on, pointing out one of the team's structures was obviously taller than the others and there was still plenty of time to win. While some minor adjustments were made to make structures stand straighter, none of them added any height, nor cared to change their product. The next 10 minutes were grueling, as I wondered if their structures would fall apart in the waiting process or if their restlessness would get the better of them.
Finally, the last minutes were counting down, and all were steadfast with their product. With 5 seconds remaining, one of the younger children who had been drawing and coloring came up to one of the structures and ate the marshmallow off the top, disqualifying the team.
The winning team had a structure of 54 centimeters, and the oldest kid on the team was 15, the youngest 12. Second place had 32 centimeters and was the team that deemed the task ¨impossible.¨ The oldest kid on this team was 11, the youngest 9.
What do you say to a group of kids who have not only out-done you, but have out-done majority of people to ever participate in The Marshmallow Challenge? I have decent language skills in Spanish, but I was without words. I struggled to explain to them that what they had seen as a simple game that went on for far too long was used in workshops all over the world with designers, artists, and business professionals from multi-million corporations to help them better their innovation and creativity. I tried to explain to them that what they had done was something many of these people couldn't. I hadn't brought the TED talk because it is in English, and in trying to explain why this activity was important I ended up just sounding crazy. Aside from lacking language skills to convey this message, they lack the understanding of the culture where this activity is implemented so successfully.
I had no advice. I had no suggestions. All I could do was highlight their good teamwork skills and let them eat the rest of the marshmallows.
Attached are some photos from the activity, including the winning group.
I thought this was an interesting outcome from the Marshmallow Challenge (or, El Concurso de Bon-Bon) and would love your thoughts!
Peace Corps Volunteer
Thanks Tom. Thanks Amanda.
The towers of Peru are alive in the lab.